Category Archives: Campaign

The promise of the “Pay Your Wage” sliding scale

A hallmark of post-punk underground culture has been the cheap show. A $5 cover for a night of 3-4 local bands and a $10-15 ticket for higher-profile touring acts in bigger venues became the norm by 90’s — and in Portland, it’s still the norm, two decades later.

While booking quasi-“underground” classical concerts for Classical Revolution PDX, it was really important to me to try and price things at a similar level. The mission of the group was access, and its ethos was irreverent and egalitarian.

And yet, there is the hard fact: cheap live shows are a hard way to break even (never mind make a living). We can cut overhead but at some point even the most DIY garage band will find itself resorting to a kickstarter or other self-funding source in order to record, buy new gear, get a tour-worthy vehicle.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that $5 is not, in 2015, what it was in 1991. Back then, it was pretty close to the local minimum wage; the federal minimum then was $4.25. That’s half the minimum wage in Portland now, and that wage itself is deflated, with rising income inequality in the US (and gentrification in in the Rose City) not making the picture any rosier.

There are plenty of creative and/or bureaucratic solutions out there. Kickstarters are the viral, DIY option (with a cut going to the corporate tech company,  like everything these days), while small nonprofit-sponsored acts in the art-music space compete for the lottery of grants and ever-thinner streams of arts fundraising. There are limitations and downsides to these strategies.

Many people might not recognize how much at a disadvantage kickarters are compared to nonprofit fundraising. Donor’s can’t write off donations, and unless you’re incorporated that income is going to look like your personal income for your taxes at the end of the year. Moreover, if you don’t have enough business to convince the IRS that your music is a sufficiently profit-making venture, you won’t be able to write off any of your expenses paid for with that kickstarted money, because they’ll legally classify your artistic passion as a “hobby.”

Unfortunately as I found out with CRPDX, nonprofits are not a panacea: you are required to raise half of your funds through donations, you have to have a board of directors who can micro-manage or even fire you, and you’re going to face a lot of paperwork and administrative culture when what you really want to do is create and perform. But whether you’re kickstarting or fundraising, sooner or later you might start to feel like you’re spending all your time begging, which is never the best headspace for art.

Artists need to get paid, not bureaucratized. Some folks think this is the responsibility of the venues where shows happen. But venues often barely cover rent — we’ve seen a lot of great ones go under in the past decade in Portland — so trying to make them foot the bill for better musician wages off of their beer sales hasn’t gained any traction despite the ongoing efforts of groups like Fair Trade Music and the local Musician’s Union.

That’s where Pay Your Wage comes in. We need a fix that isn’t a lottery like grants, that isn’t s perennial begging system like kickstarter or fundraising, and that isn’t a coercive model that puts the pressure on the venues and makes everyone adversarial.

What if our $5-$15 ticket prices at least kept pace with wage levels and inflation? What if, further, those who were doing better than average and still coming to shows — professionals like attorneys, high tech workers, medical professionals — were given a framework that encouraged them (without demanding) to give a little more?

Here’s how it works:

  • Your show has a sliding scale for admission
  • The scale is called “Pay Your Wage”, which means: pay what you make in an hour
  • It’s an honor system; everyone pays what they will
  • You can use the minimum wage as a minimum — which will go up when our so-called leaders find the will in their cold little hearts to hike it — or you can set a lower minimum for the under-employed, or no minimum if you don’t want to turn anyone away.
  • For ticketed events, many systems like Brown Paper Tickets will let you set up several different prices of tickets, so you can even use the sliding scale for advance sales. Pick a small range of prices and have the purchase page say “Please choose a price closest to your hourly wage”. E.g., $10, $15, $20, $25, $30, $40, $50

That’s all there is to it. Once people encounter enough shows structured this way it will become second-nature to them; I’ve seen this happen among the audiences where it has been tried already.

Will everyone really pay their wage? Almost certainly not — but they will likely still pay more than what they pay now. And it only takes one generous person chipping in $50 to make a big difference for a band playing a small room. If the small-venue show averages $10 or $12 a person instead of $5, the bands playing will more than double their (still slim) income. Bigger venues that might currently charge $10-$15 can expect to get closer to a $20 average; when CRPDX used this model for a chamber performance in 2014 we didn’t turn anyone away, had a number of people come in for free or paying an “under-employed” $5, and yet we still averaged $19 per audience member at the gate.

This system also builds in a way for show promoters and venues to gradually shift prices up with wages without pissing most people off. If Portland follows Seattle’s lead and raises the minimum wage to $15, then a new suggested minimum of $15 won’t seem so crazy as long as “Pay Your Wage” is the buzzword.

If you’re in a band or producing a show, try it out! Let me know how it goes, what problems you encounter and how it changes what you make per-audience-member. If you’re running a bigger presenting organization that typically sells higher-priced tickets, maybe you could experiment with this model for a section of your audience or for special outreach performances. I believe the more that it’s tried, the more this system will succeed in changing people’s expectations, by letting them be part of better arts funding directly, at the show, supporting the bands and other performers they like with a few extra bucks — an hour’s worth.

Pay Your Wage table card PDF, BrownPaperTickets setup

Want to use the Pay Your Wage sliding-scale model for your next show? Here are a couple of things that can help.

This simple table-tent card explains the scale to your guests. Just print it out on heavy card stock, fold in half and set up at your admission table or box office:

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You can also set up online advance ticket purchase for Pay Your Wage sliding scale. Here’s a screenshot of a recent show’s configuration – it’s easy to set up, just enter tiers for various wage levels:

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With a combination of advance tickets and sales at the door the show above averaged over $19 per attendee. There were plenty of people paying only $5, and nobody was turned away.


Pay your wage: a Muse:forward campaign

It’s been a quick think-tanking, but after discussing the brainstorm with a half-dozen trusted and committed people in the local arts scene I’m feeling really confident in the first tangible idea to come out of Muse:forward: PAY YOUR WAGE.

A fix for deflated cover charges, the idea is that we adopt a new norm, a standard sliding scale, for going to shows: pay what you would make in an hour. If that’s minimum wage cool, if you make more that’s great, chip in a little more. This could transform our deflated arts economy overnight in a way that is fair.

But this isn’t a price-hike by bands or venues — it’s an opt-in system like tipping at a restaurant, so it’s all about buy-in from all of us when we go to shows. The great part is, there’s nothing preventing it from starting right now: if you go to a $5 show and pay $9 or $15, they aren’t going to turn it down! But to make it count, we need to let everyone know about the plan and get everyone on board.

It’s a bottom-up fix and in the spirit of the Portland community. Please feel free to share and distribute this image!